The United States and Russia have sought to lower the temperature in a heated standoff over Ukraine during high-level talks in Geneva but reported no breakthroughs as a result of the discussions.
Armed with seemingly intractable and diametrically opposed demands, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met on Friday for roughly 90 minutes at what the former dubbed a “critical moment” in the crisis.
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Both sides said they were open to further dialogue following the talks, but put the onus on the other to move first to defuse tensions.
Blinken said the pair’s “frank and substantive” discussions had put Washington and Moscow on “a clearer path to understanding each other’s positions”, adding that Russia, which has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border, now faced a choice.
“It can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security, or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation,” he told reporters at a news conference.
“We’ve been clear – if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken added, citing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Lavrov, for his part, said the ball was in Washington’s court as he called on the US to respond to Russia’s sweeping wishlist of security demands, which Moscow argues are essential for its own safety and the wider region’s stability.
Speaking at a separate news conference, he described the meeting with Blinken as open and useful but said the Kremlin would not know whether talks were on the right track until it had received a written response to its proposals from the US, expected to be delivered next week.
Lavrov said Russia’s concerns were real and “not about invented threats, but real facts that no one hides”, such as the US and its Western allies “pumping Ukraine with weapons”.
Asked about the possibility of a summit between President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden, Lavrov was circumspect.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, President Putin is always ready for contacts with President Biden, it’s clear these contacts need to be seriously prepared,” he said.
Blinken said of a potential meeting between Biden and Putin: “If we conclude, and the Russians conclude, that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared do that.”
‘No breakthroughs and no quick fixes’
Among Russia’s proposals is a call for the Washington-led NATO military alliance to end all activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine and never embrace the former Soviet republic as a new member.
Moscow has warned it could take unspecified military action unless the demands are met.
But the US and its NATO allies have flatly ruled out doing so and said that Putin knows they are non-starters.
The Russian foreign ministry reaffirmed its demands on Friday, while the US Department of State put out two statements on Russian “disinformation,” including specifically on Ukraine, and another entitled “Taking Action to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilization Campaign in Ukraine.”
The documents accused Russia and Putin of trying to reconstitute the former Soviet Union and carve out its zone of influence in Eastern Europe through intimidation and force.
Moscow mocked those statements, with the Russian foreign ministry saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” and charging that it’s the West that thinks in categories of zones of influence. Lavrov also abruptly dismissed them.
“I do hope that not everyone in the State Department was working on those materials and there were some who were working on the essence of our proposals and their substance,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Geneva, said it was clear the US and Russia “remain worlds apart” despite the talk of continued diplomacy following Friday’s talks.
“There were no breakthroughs and no quick fixes, what the two did agree on though was that they would pursue dialogue,” Butler said.
“But Blinken did say there is no doubt from the US point of view that Russia is continuing to escalate the situation behind the scenes, by amassing troops near the border with Ukraine, while at the same time saying that it wants to pursue diplomacy,” she added.
“Lavrov, of course, would say that the US and Western powers are also being aggressive in their actions by continuing to try and expand eastwards with NATO.”
West threatens unified, ‘swift’ response to incursion
Ukraine is already beset by conflict.
After Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula eight years ago, it moved to back a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine which saw rebel forces take control of swaths of territory – areas they continue to hold today.
The simmering conflict in the Donbas has claimed more than 14,000 lives to date, according to Kyiv.
Repeated rounds of economic sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014 appear to have had scant effect on the Kremlin’s approach towards its neighbour so far.
But the West has said any new invasion would draw a “swift, severe, united response” underlined by even harsher punitive measures.
In the 48 hours leading up to his meeting with Lavrov on Friday, Blinken met Ukraine’s president, as well as German, French and British officials in a bid to shore up support among Washington’s allies about how to respond if Moscow presses ahead with an incursion.
Russia has routinely denied it is planning an attack, insisting it has the right to move its troops on its own territory as it sees fit.
Moscow has also repeatedly pinned the blame for the deteriorating security situation in the region on the US, its Western allies and NATO.